Four Feudal Estates
This is the history of the Roman Tenth Legion from its founding by Julius Caesar to its demise under the Byzantine Empire. The majority of the book follows Caesar’s conquests and civil war battles, although there is also significant coverage of the Jewish uprisings against Rome. Battles are an important component of the book, and the author’s descriptions strike an excellent balance: you get all of the details you need to visualize the battle and understand why each side won or lost, but you don’t get unnecessary details. If the author describes a deployment order or a tactic, it’s because it had some significance to the soldiers at the time or made a difference in the battle’s outcome.
I’m not a Roman history expert; I knew about major battles, important emperors, and the geographic territories won and lost by the Roman Empire, but I didn’t know many of the details contained in this book. Below, I’ll list some of the interesting things I learned, followed by a couple of criticisms involving the order in which the information was presented:
A new Roman legion consisted of men who were roughly the same age (17 was the minimum), and all from the same geographic region (the Tenth Legion was recruited in Spain). The book says the men were “conscripted” but doesn’t mention how the individuals were chosen. They had to enlist for 16 years (later raised to 20 years), and were not replaced if they died; the legion just continually became smaller over the 16 years. Sometimes generals would extend a legion’s service past its dismissal date, causing a number of mutinies and near-mutinies.
When a legion dismissed its men at the end of their service, some would choose to re-enlist for another 16 years, while the others would be granted land, usually in an area where the Empire wanted a trained militia, such as on a border. After men were dismissed, the legion would be brought back up to full strength by another conscription of young men, almost always from the same geographic region as previous recruits.
The men only averaged 5’ 4” in height, but were kept extremely physically fit by training, marching, and construction work. The legions had blacksmiths, cobblers, and other tradespeople when they happened to recruit someone with those skills, but when battle started those men took their place in the line just like everyone else.
I was surprised by how often generals and legions would switch sides during Rome’s civil wars; this probably shouldn’t have been surprising given that the civil wars were mostly power struggles between leaders, rather than battles between regions or ideologies. I was also surprised by how important naval power was during these conflicts; this probably should have been obvious given the geography of the Roman Empire, but broad histories typically focus on the importance of the road network and rarely mention seapower.
When Julius Caesar was murdered, he was preparing to invade Persia, and planning to continue into India, to repeat the conquests of Alexander the Great. If Caesar had lived and succeeded (I’m guessing success would have been likely, given his tactical and engineering skills), this would have been one of the most exciting periods in history, and would have changed the future for Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
My only complaint about the book is the order in which some of the information is presented. The opening chapter describes the beginning of a battle between two Roman armies, but right as the action reaches its climax, the chapter ends and the reader must wait until near the end of the book for the battle’s resolution. This is similar to what I saw in the book Intrepid Aviators; I hope that in the future, authors will realize this is a terrible writing technique. There is also a small section near the end of the book with some information about the common soldier’s life and equipment; I would have preferred this information near the front of the book, so I could have had it in my mind as I imagined the Tenth Legion marching across Europe and the Middle East.
Stephen Dando-Collins has written several other books about individual Roman legions; I plan to read them all as soon as possible: